Veteran hockey coach with over 20 years of coaching experience at the high school and collegiate levels, Roger Grillo joined Minnesota Hockey for a discussion on the changing landscape of youth hockey. The 12 year head coach of Brown University’s men’s ice hockey team touches on why Massachusetts witnessed a major drop in elite players and why patience really is a virtue when it comes to youth hockey.
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length. If you would like a complete transcript, please contact Minnesota Hockey directly.
Minnesota Hockey: For those that may not know about your background, can you explain your experience of growing up and playing hockey in Minnesota?
Roger Grillo: It was a big part of my development, growing up in Apple Valley and having the opportunity to play high school hockey there with some great coaches including Larry Hendrickson, John Harrington and Mark DeCenzo. We were really fortunate that we had coaches of that caliber working at the high school level with us.
The other great thing about that time was the amount of outdoor ice that we were able to take advantage of. For me, those were great memories and great times. It is something I’ll never forget.
MH: For the past four years you have been the Regional ADM Manager for Massachusetts and New England Districts. What has that experience been like for you?
Grillo: It’s been fantastic. It has its challenges, but the exciting thing for me is to see the changes that have taken place not only throughout the country but certainly in my region with people just stepping back and taking a look at what they are doing in youth sports, particularly youth hockey, and the culture that we put our kids in.
MH: You mentioned some of the changes in your region. Can you give us a few more details on what was taking place and what you are moving towards?
Grillo: The biggest change out here is the move from full ice hockey to cross ice hockey. With the exception of the state of Vermont, there wasn’t much cross ice hockey happening at all. With the start of this upcoming season, probably around 80-85% of all the 8 and under in our region will be playing cross ice, and the rest will be playing some aspects of it. In three years, we will go from not much happening at all to basically all kids having some experience of cross ice hockey, which is huge. It’s a huge positive for the families and the kids that have decided to play the sport that we all love.
I think it will impact the overall talent pool and the number of kids that stay in the sport for longer periods of time. We already have started to see that impact, but we will see an even bigger impact in the next five to ten years.
Let me give you a stat. In 2003, there were 185 kids from Massachusetts playing Division I college hockey. This year there was 100. In the last 10 years, there was a drop off of 85 fewer kids playing at the elite level. That is a pretty telling number in terms of the impact that the culture of youth hockey has had in a negative way in this region.
MH: Explain a little bit more where the real value is of half ice and cross ice games compared to the full ice.
Grillo: I think the biggest value is that the best players I’ve ever coached or been around are the ones that their thinking process and decision making process is far superior. You can fall in love with a guy that can skate like the wind. You can fall in love with a guy who’s six foot six. You can fall in love with all of those physical attributes. At the end of the day, what separates the men from the boys is elite decision making. You can’t coach that into somebody. You can’t teach that. They have to experience it.
With less and less street hockey and pond hockey or just unstructured sports of any kind happening, I think it’s the responsibility of the adults that we put in rules and criteria that force kids to make those decisions without the fear of failure. That’s where the small spatial stuff is so critical because things happen quicker. There are decisions happening all the time. There’s a ton of creative offense, which is so difficult to teach.
MH: You have mentioned culture a few times during our conversation. Culture seems to play a huge role in the changing landscape of youth sports. What are some of the major cultural issues that are facing youth hockey parents, coaches and administrators right now?
Grillo: A big one is cost. The neat thing about my region out east here is that nothing is really that far. I have 72,000 kids in this region, and they are all within a four or five hour driving range. There isn’t a need to travel all over the place for competition. Yet what has happened is, the drive to play against the best has put families where they are in cars and hotels at a young age. It just adds to the cost and the burnout factor. Cost, burnout, and a nonproductive development model are probably the three major factors that the ADM is trying to fight in this region.
MH: Looking at the NHL and elite players, they seem to be reaching their peak at an age of 25-30. Yet, at the youth levels, there seems to be this idea of creating an elite athlete at 12 or 14. What are some of your thoughts on the notions commonly referred to as “too much too soon” or “the race to the wrong finish line”?
Grillo: As a parent, I can somewhat understand it. What parent doesn’t want their kid to be the best? I mean that is just human nature. To fight that on our part is almost crazy. The key is we have to educate them. There is a right and a wrong way to have your kid be the best. The problem is that, generally speaking, what happens when you try to develop that elite 10 or 12 year old, the negative ramifications when they turn 15, 16 or 17 far outweigh the positives. The biggest negative is the kid and the parents are completely fried. They throw their hands up and say I don’t want to do this anymore.
That is really the time when you should flip that switch. You should get serious about the sport, and you should get serious about what you do away from the rink with your training. Most kids that have grown up the last 20 years are going the opposite direction because somebody tried to get them to be the elite ten or twelve year old. It is really not a healthy scenario.
MH: There also seems to be a concern at least in Minnesota, I’m not sure about the New England area, among parents that their child will get left behind. Without pushing their kid, they feel he or she won’t even be able to make a high school roster much less college or the next step.
Grillo: The key to it is patience. Development takes place over time. If you shortcut the process of development and you try to cram it into a short period of time with a young kid, that’s when the problems start. At the end of the day, it’s like anything you want to be good at. You have to consistently do it, but you have to have balance.
There’s a reason why there is summer vacation in school. If kids went to school year round, not only would the students be burned out but so would the teachers. Finding that balance in a lot of ways is just common sense, and it’s what we do in every other aspect of our lives. For some reason in the race to produce the best player, everyone is trying to cram too much into a short window.
MH: What type of a role should parents play? What should they focus on when interacting with their child and his or her development?
Grillo: The most important thing a parent can do for a kid is to cocoon their passion to play. Most little kids have it. If you gave them a choice, they would be at the rink every single day. You have to find that balance between getting there enough but not getting there too much. That way when the kid is 13-14 he or she really has the passion to play, train and do the other stuff it takes to take that next step. That’s priority number one as a parent, to find that balance between enjoyment at a young age but not doing it too much.